HERE’S A, ER, TOAST TO THE NEW YEAR. Arabica’s non-beverage specialty.
The next 12 months will offer obsession with stimulus and stimulation. The new administration plans to push a trillionish dollars into our pockets through various projects, in hopes that we will feel so flush as to go out and spend it — perhaps on dinner out. It's not likely to work, and prognosticators suggest that those who manage to keep their kitchens out of foreclosure will be eager to prepare foods in them in 2009. So, while there are rumors of a few prospective openings (including Harding Lee Smith's third, in the old SALT space at Exchange and Federal streets), it might be a slow year for restaurants.
But we have got to get out of our homes for something, and coffee provides stimulation on the cheap. The federal stimulus program will not involve blind spending, but rather investments in early childhood education and green energy to make us smarter and more efficient. Coffee has been shown in laboratory tests to accomplish both these things in ten minutes.
This may help explain the big crowd at the new Arabica, which moved into a larger space with more light a few doors down. Arabica is undoubtedly Portland's best place for coffee to stay, and the only cafû in the city where they push as much stimulant in ceramic as they do in paper cups. Thus Arabica is an auspicious place to take advantage of the company of other stimulated people. Coffee makes us witty and sharp rather than alcohol-sloppy, and at cafûs people tend to come as they are rather than dress up and try on personas. It was these qualities that gave cafû culture a central place in the birth of the democratic public sphere.
Arabica's old space was set up panopticon-style so everyone could watch everyone across the table-less middle of the cafû from the benches that lined the walls and the counter along the back. But while the panopticon was designed to induce paranoid self-regulation, Arabica's old setup had a different effect. It was like the ancient Greek polis, in which the shared center served as a public space, where people could leave the private realm behind their table to mingle with acquaintances waiting in line. At the new Arabica the middle is occupied and semi-private. One must pivot carefully past tables where previously there had been space for enthusiastic hellos and gestural speaking, or for a child to swing and throw the communal Elmo. Rather than look in upon a central space, gazes are more akimbo.
But in becoming slightly more impersonal, Arabica is now more crowded. The reason must be the new space, since the coffee and snacks have not changed at all. The drip coffee at Arabica is good — if not the city's best. Coffee preferences are profoundly idiosyncratic, but I find their dark roast a bit light and a hair under-brewed. It's more nutty and smooth than rich and full. The espresso drinks, where technique is more important, are consistently excellent in the hands of the experienced staff.
While Arabica has only recently begun to experiment with roasting its own coffee, it has been serving terrific toast made from its own breads for years. This morning's dense oatmeal rye was served crisp edged and buttery moist in the center. It had a touch of rye seediness to offset the oatmeal's thick texture and notes of sweet. In the afternoons patrons favor slices of homemade pies — another likely food trend thanks to our pie-obsessed new president (on YouTube you can see him work a crowd into a frenzy just talking about pie). Arabica offers quirky varieties that often show admirable restraint with sugar.
There will be other coffee trends to watch this year in Portland. Breaking New Grounds — a sort of Arabica for teenagers — has new owners and a new name (Morning in Paris). Munjoy Hill residents are getting used to the new Hilltop Coffee, which lost some personality in the move across the street. But Arabica will almost certainly continue to draw the biggest crowds, perhaps not despite but because of the new obstacles to sociability. The polis died in part because the stimulating effects of life in the glare of the public proved unbearable in the long run. Arabica, which offers indirect sunlight through its new wall of north-east facing windows, offers stimulation at more manageable levels.
Brian Duff can be reached email@example.com.